The evolution of environmental plasticity

Theme: Evolution & Adaptation

Primary Supervisor:

Jürg Bähler

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Max Reuter

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Project Description:

Virtually all living organisms are able to buffer environmental fluctuations by altering their physiology, morphology or behaviour in response to external conditions. These plastic responses are essential for organisms to cope with a variable environment and are likely to play a vital role in their response to rapid climate change.

In addition to its important ecological function, plasticity also relates directly to one of the core questions of contemporary biological research: how does the genotype determine the phenotype? Because plastic phenotypes are expressed by an individual, in the absence of genetic change, they necessarily rely on changes in gene expression. Studying plasticity therefore provides a window to understanding the principles of gene regulation, the evolutionary forces that have given rise to it, and the genetic constraints that shape it.

This PhD investigates the emergence of novel gene regulation in response to fluctuating environments. The project will use fission yeast, a model organism that offers powerful molecular and genetic techniques to manipulate and analyse gene regulation under tightly controlled conditions. We will use the fission yeast system to investigate a wide range of questions, focussing on molecular, evolutionary or ecological questions, as exemplified below. What are the evolutionary dynamics of gene regulation, and how are they shaped by selection and mutational input? How are new genes integrated into regulatory networks? What is the relationship between regulation and expression noise? What is the relative contribution of cis- and trans-effects to novel regulation? What ecological conditions favour plastic gene regulation?

Policy Impact of Research:

Phenotypic plasticity is an essential mechanism for populations to deal with climate change. Yet, we have little empirical evidence for how past environments and population history shape plasticity and/or genetic variation for either fixed or plastic environmental responses. This project will fill this essential gap.

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